The Native American Concept of the Hero 

by Gayla Nelson © 2001

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Many people in modern day society have a skewed idea of the concept of the hero. Sports celebrities, rock and roll stars, movie idols, and cartoon super-heroes have become the modern idea of the hero.  This concept can be summed up in one word - sad.  When a society has lost touch with one of the most beautiful and noble of beings, the true hero, then it has lost a part of its universal soul.  It is only through the study of various cultures and our own history that we are able to recapture the essence of what the hero really is and his importance to all of us, to our purpose in life, and the impact on all our relationships.

When tragedy strikes, as it did on September 11, 2001, we catch a glimpse of the modern day hero, as he should be seen, in our police and firefighters, but it seems to be a fleeting and momentary event that lasts only as long as the media focuses upon it and does not appear to have a great impact on our collective conscious. All too quickly we go back to our idolization of the newest pop star or athlete.  These people simply do not meet the criteria of the hero.  What they do is not for the good of their people, but for themselves, financially and otherwise. That is not to say that they are bad people.  They can be wonderful, generous, and upstanding citizens of their communities.  But, they are not heroes.

Immortal heroes are fascinating to study.  They can return again and again to do great deeds for their people, but the mortal hero is, to me, the more pure form of the hero.  The mortal hero is like us. He must live with the human condition.  He can get sick. He can die. This makes his sacrifices for the people all that much more heroic.  He has honor.  One of the best places to find and discover the concept of what makes true heroes is through the study of Native American folklore and legend. 

 The Sioux song "Little Mouse Counting Coup" is a perfect illustration of this. Itunkala bravely fights the threat to his people, the other mice, by going to war against the cat, Igmu, despite personal harm or possible death. He does this to make the world a safer place for his people.  Some may think it is suicidal for a mouse to attack a cat, but Itunkala is not going to war with the desire to be killed.  He is going to war with the desire of freeing his people from a real threat.  While he is injured in the battle (he loses his tail), he is still victorious and his people are safe.

Not all heroes rush out into battle dressed in armor with faces painted and a weapon in their hands.  Some heroes clear the way for their people to win a battle in order to save their people.  A beautiful example of this type of mortal hero can be found in the Oneida story, "The Warrior Maiden."  The Oneidas were terrorized for many years by the Mingoes whose tribe greatly outnumbered them; their numbers like grains of sand.  A young Oneida girl, Aliquipiso, sacrifices her own life in order to lead the enemy of her people, the Mingoes, right into the perfect position for the Oneidas to attack.  By making this sacrifice, she frees her people from future attacks.  The memory of her courage is handed down from one generation to the next, forever, as she holds a great place of honor within her tribe and its history.

While those are just two examples of the mortal hero that can be found in Native American mythology, they are certainly not the only ones.  Every tribe has its legends of these heroes and their memory is hallowed and lives on through the people.  They are forever remembered. The sacrifices they made and the honor which they brought to their tribes, is far more important than those human qualities that modern man seems to find heroic.  Setting records for the most points made in a game or greatest number of record sales or weeks on the top forty lists are hardly what we should view as heroic.  Hopefully, our society, now that it is facing new enemies and new threats, will learn from events that have already occurred and will probably occur in the future.  Perhaps our society will take a lesson from the past, grow in its perspective of what is truly important for our people and our nation, and recognize those individuals who truly fit the definition of a hero as those who came before us on this continent already have.


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